Over 10 years ago I learned of my husband’s addiction to porn and sex. I had no idea this was something he was struggling with. Obviously, this completely devastated me and left me feeling like everything in my life was completely out of control. As we started seeing a therapist and I joined a support group, I was introduced to the concept of boundaries. I really had no idea what it meant to set boundaries and initially it sounded pretty selfish.
Growing up in church I believed I was to “give my life away”, “die to self”, “love others more than myself”,” serve, serve, serve”, “forgive seventy times seven” etc. Yes, I do believe these truths can all be found in Scripture! But what I didn’t know is that all the things God calls me to do, also require boundaries. AND that the concept of boundaries started with God himself! Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend wrote an amazing, eye opening book called Boundaries, and it has helped redefine my idea of what a boundary is, why they are vital, and how they actually bring freedom!
What I Learned About Boundaries
These are some of the truths about boundaries that come directly from Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend:
- Boundaries are anything that helps to differentiate you from someone else or shows where you begin and end.
- Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me.
- Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.
- Boundaries help us define what is not our property and what we are not responsible for. We are not responsible for other people. We are never commanded to have “other-control”.
How to Set a Boundary
Many of the women I have the privilege of walking with ask me all the time, “How do I set boundaries with my husband?”, as well as, “What boundaries do I need to set with my husband?” These are very tough to answer because every situation is different and the boundaries can vary person to person.
A good friend, who is also a therapist, shared a couple things with me that I have found so helpful. Her advice helps me check my motives. She says to never set a boundary to punish or threaten your husband or simply to get him to do what you want him to do. A boundary is to protect you, and to define what is your responsibility and what is his.
I have also learned some practical ways to communicate my boundaries. (This is helpful with anyone you are in relationship with). Communicating this way helps set clear boundaries:
“When you ____ (interrupt me), I feel ____ (disrespected). I want you to ___ (let me finish before you respond). But because I cannot control you, If you ___ (interrupt me), I will choose to___ (leave the room).”
Follow Through Is Key
Following through is where it gets so difficult. When the other person violates the boundary, it’s not uncommon to think, “Well, I set my boundary but it didn’t work.” If someone violates your boundary, it does NOT mean it didn’t work, The only way a boundary doesn’t work is if YOU don’t follow through on your responsibility. Remember, you can’t control what other people do. You can only control your actions.
What If More Action Is Needed?
The above example could be considered a “minor” boundary but what about a situation that potentially threatens the marriage? For example, what if a woman finds out her husband has been looking at pornography, compulsively masturbating and chatting with other women for years? She sets a boundary that they both need to go to counseling and find support groups. They both choose to start seeing a therapist and they find support groups. It seems that God is doing a miracle and they just might make it!
After some time however, her husband just doesn’t want to continue doing the work. He quits seeing his therapist and going to his support group. He even gets to the point that he communicates he doesn’t want to be married but takes no steps to end the marriage. He picks back up his destructive behaviors. What possible boundary does she set now?
This is a familiar story and one (with varying details) several women I’ve known over the last decade have faced. There are no easy answers. It is heartbreaking to come to the place where you know you need to set some hard boundaries and if they are violated, it may cost the marriage.
A Real Example
One of my dear friends is in this very place. I have laughed with her even in the darkest times, because she is a woman of beauty and even in the dark valley has chosen to see God and find laughter in the smallest things. I’ve also cried with her as I’ve watched her fight like a warrior and cling to the Lord as she lets go of her husband and her marriage because being the only one to hang on and fight was killing her. She is wise beyond her years and she speaks truth and beauty to her sisters who are also fighting for their marriages. She will be the first to tell you she has “lost it” and NOT been the picture of “beauty” more than once along the journey, but even this is beautiful to me. She is vulnerable. She is authentic. She is fighting and it isn’t a battle if it isn’t bloody and ugly.
The following is her journey with boundaries. I hope it will help you in your own journey.
“I have begged God to release me from my marriage and in the next breath I have begged Him to heal my marriage. I am married to a deeply entrenched addict who is preciously and severely broken. He is unrepentant, refuses any level of recovery whatsoever, has isolated himself from most everyone, distanced himself from God and is still actively pursuing multiple simultaneous emotional and physical affairs. He has plainly said he does not want to be married. It seems he simply does not wish to be the one to legally end our marriage.
After a year of dedicated betrayal trauma recovery and codependency recovery work on myself, and over 18 months since initial discovery of his addiction; I feel like I have gone as far in my healing as I possibly can right now. I have taken a long and hard look at myself, the good and the bad. I am confident I did not, could not even, have caused his brokenness. The thick deep roots of this go far back, long before he met me. I did not and could not cause his acting out.
Even still, the bright light shining on his addiction also has shined light on areas of brokenness within myself. I have been humbled in ways I did not even know were possible. I have felt every feeling that I think exists, sometimes all in the same hour. I have fought. I have worked. I have grown. I have had to learn how to set tough boundaries. I have fasted. I have prayed. I have done everything within my human capabilities to cling to my Creator, my covenant, and my commitment to our marriage.
I can see myself with my dear husband in a deep, dark, muddy pit. The kind of dark where you could barely see your hand in front of your face. With the kind of mud that your body sank into. The mud seemed to be a few feet deep. It took every bit of strength to use my hands to manually pull my leg out, put it a few feet ahead of me and let it sink in slowly again. All to try to take a single step. It was goopy, sticky and it smelled like crap.
I slowly, finally got to the side and started climbing. My husband stayed back. Seemed all he was interested in was making mud angels, swimming in it, slinging mud at me and taking long rests in the muck. At times, he seemed to almost fall asleep, like he was floating on his back on top of water. But I could see his body sink as he slept. My greatest fear still is that his entire face may eventually sink beneath this wretched mud. Oh Lord, then he’d be completely lost to this pit.
At first, I would run to him and wake him up just so he wouldn’t sink too far. But that meant I was back at square one. And over time, I realized he seemed to have no real desire to leave this hell hole of a pit. So there came a point where I could no longer sludge back to try and rescue him.
I began to claw, struggle and fight my way up the steep jagged wall. Hoping to find a way for us to escape. Rocks slipped out from underfoot. I slid down a few times. My hands would get cut on the sharp edges. It exhausted me but I kept climbing. I kept going. I repeatedly called back to him. “Hey . . . I think I can see something up there.” “Oh babe, I really think we can do this . . . I think I am getting close.” “We can get out baby . . . are you climbing yet? . . . babe?” Nothing, I kept climbing. If I could just get out. I could get help or I could figure out how to get him out too. I managed to get all the way to the top lip of the pit.
After so much work, I now smell fresh air and I feel sunshine on my face. I look around. The hope, the beauty, the grass, the sky. It’s breathtaking. It’s beautiful. I can see my face just breaking over the top of the hole as I take in the view. My hair is matted & frazzled. My face and head are covered in dried crusted mud. I have dried blood on my clothes. The only clean parts are the lines on my face from tears of pain and sweat from hard work. My eyes are red and swollen, but also bright and wide open.
I throw one leg over the pit to pull myself out. But all the sudden I feel myself getting yanked back. I can’t seem to get my body over the side. That’s when I feel the tug around my waist. This tether that binds he and I is too short. In fact, any time during my ascension climb when my husband would do certain things at the bottom of the pit, it would bungee me back down some. I suddenly realized that the length of this tether is just long enough to allow me to get to the edge. I can get to the top of this damn pit, but I can’t get out unless he gets out with me or I sever the tether.
A few more calls down to him, closing my eyes and praying he was ready to come up. I know I have the patience and stamina to stay here and wait if he is actively coming, no matter how long his climb may take. I know I can wait. “Love, please answer me. Please. Are you climbing yet? Babe? Baby?”
As my echo subsided, silence was the only background sound to my shattered heart’s wails. My soul knew. He wasn’t climbing. Not once had he truly tried. I felt like this was the moment God released me from my marriage. It was time.
It isn’t what I want, not with one ounce of me. I dearly want my husband healed. I truly desire our covenant union to be healed. But if I do not break free, I will forever be stuck in this filthy, nasty, sticky, disgusting, dark, dank place. I fervently pray he gets out of this pit, but I can no longer allow him to hold me captive within his brokenness. This is excruciatingly painful. This tether is not made of nylon or rope. The two became one many years ago, remember? The tether is made of flesh, of years of life together, of plans for the future, of dreams together, of parenting together, and of soul ties. You might as well tell me to cut off my limbs. I do not feel ready. I do not want any of this. But I was not given an option of whether I wanted this or not. I am, however, given an option of whether I want to stay here forever.
I don’t. I can’t. I won’t.
My beloved, the man who I prayed for since before I was even a teenager, love of my life, my very best friend, husband of my soul. Even now, I love you; more than simple human words could ever attempt to express. Just like the inside of the wedding ring you hide from the world says, “I will always believe in you”. But even more than that, I believe in the One who created you. Please wake up. If you can’t be strong yet, be brave. Fight. You are worth it. You always have been. You always will be.
Babe, this is going to hurt like actual hell. <deep breath> Now, will someone please hand me the damn scissors?”
Stacey Oliver grew up as a missionary kid, and met her husband Greg at Bible college. She and Greg were married and in church ministry together for more than 15 years before his secret addiction to pornography and sex was exposed in 2009. After experiencing the shock and trauma of betrayal, Stacey began a path of healing, recovery, and forgiveness, both in marriage an in her individual life. She and Greg founded Awaken in 2015, and have the privilege of walking with individuals, couples, and ministry leaders to help them experience healing from sexual brokenness. If you’re a ministry leader, we’d love to connect with you and help you feel better equipped and more confident to shepherd sexually broken people. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org!